Germans open the space to Soviets

When the Third Reich started to disintegrate under the Allied bombing, the Nazis began to move the critical factory areas of Hitler’s “Wonder Weapons,” underground in the state of Thuringia, from central Germany, in deep wooded valleys and rugged terrain, away from the advancing enemy forces. The area had also several tunnel mines already dug into hillsides, which only required enlarging to be used as military facilities. Nazis built there an underground factory for the manufacture of V-1 and V-2 rockets at the southern border of the Harz mountains, near Nordhausen and the adjacent the concentration camp where the forced slave laborers who built the rockets were housed, the Mittelwerk rocket factory and the Dora-Mittelbau camp. Two nearby associated underground factory sites, the B3a and B12 tunnel networks, were also built. The gypsum mining tunnels of Kohnstein hill near Nordhausen, were already planned for underground storage of strategic petroleum reserves in 1934. Two parallel tunnels were planned to be dug through the mountain from north to south, connected by a ladder-like series of lateral galleries running between the main tunnels and a smaller service tunnel, running through the middle and parallel to the main tunnels. Narrow-gauge railways were run into the main tunnels to connect with the main rail system. By 1943, this complex was the largest storage area for fuel and oil in Germany. After the bombing of the V-2 development complex at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast in August 1943 and early 1944, production was moved to the tunnels in the Kohnstein hill. The “Mittelwerk” company took over the work, eventually completing the tunnel system.


In the end there were some 47 cross-galleries, but not all connecting Tunnel A with Tunnel B. The work on the tunnels and assembly of the rockets was performed by slave laborers from Buchenwald concentration camp. Initially the inmates lived in the tunnels, subject to the damp, darkness, dust, and continuous noise of the underground site. Later a camp was built adjacent to the tunnel entrances on the southern side of the Kohnstein and was code-named “Dora” (“Mittelbau”). Dora became one of the largest forced labor camps in Germany and the Mittelwerk produced V-2 rockets, V-1 “flying bombs,” jet engines for Me 262 and Ar 234 aircraft. In 1945, production of the “Taifun” and “Orkan” anti-aircraft missiles, was added to the site. By April 11, 1945, when the U.S. Army 3rd Armored Division captured the complex, the Mittelwerk factory had produced over 13,000 V-1 and V-2 rockets, at the expense of the lives of almost 20,000 of the forced laborers.


Americans and later the British, removed as many completed rockets and parts as they could find to start the United States space program. Later the Soviets took over the site in July 1945. The most famous of WW II turbine-jet aircraft, the Messerschmitt Me 262, development began in 1938 and was fielded in 1944 when a special production facility was set up for a quicker assembly line manufacture that became vulnerable to Allied bombing. A company labeled Flugzeugwerke Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (REIMAHG), was formed as a subsidiary of the Gustloff Nazi industrial complex. REIMAHG eventually became concerned only with the Me 262, and its main production facility was located in an old sand mine for porcelain production in the Walpersberg Hill near Kahla (south of Jena), codenamed “Lachs” (“Salmon”). The existing tunnels in the Walpersberg were enlarged and others were dug, and massive concrete bunkers were built outside these tunnels. Various parts were made and partially assembled in the tunnels, then moved outside into the concrete bunkers, where final assembly was  completed. The assembled jets were then moved to the top of the hill via a platform that moved along a railed ramp by a power winch. The top of the Walpersberg had been leveled off and concreted in a massive construction effort, to form a runway about 1 km long. This was not sufficient for a Me 262 to take off, so small rockets assisted the take-off. The runway was also too short for the jets to land, so by leaving the Walpersberg was no chance for emergency landings. The jets were flown from Kahla to a site some 130 kilometers away to be fitted with weapons and radios, and to undergo final testing. REIMAHG produced only twenty-seven Me 262 jet fighters by the end of the war. The work was done mostly by foreign forced laborers, some 991 of whom died during their nine months at “Lachs.” The U.S. Army took over the site on April 12, 1945, and before turning Thuringia over to the Soviets in July, they removed enough parts to finish five Me 262s that were found on the production line. Surprisingly, the Kahla area had not been bombed. British Intelligence had photographed Me 262s at the site in March 1945, so the Allies were well aware of “Lachs.” But Kahla was spared the fate of the V-2 works at Nordhausen, which suffered a devastating bombing attack only eight days before the American Army arrived. Beginning in 1947, the Soviets blew up the concrete bunkers and assembly buildings, and also the entrances to most of the tunnels, including destruction of the concrete runway on the hilltop. However, the concrete buildings had reinforced walls some 10 feet thick, so in many cases, the explosions only collapsed the roofs.  REIMAHG-Kahla remains today one of the most extensive Third Reich ruins sites, with the walls and foundations of most of the concrete assembly and workshop buildings, some still supporting parts of their roofs. Allied bombing campaign covered targets around Nordhausen including Gustloff factory, Mittelwerk and Nordhausen airfield. On July 7, 1944, Eighth Air Force sent in 453 B-17s, of which 114 hit Leipzig/Taucha, 79 hit Leipzig/Mockau, 35 hit Leipzig/Heiterblick and 15 hit Leipzig/Abtnaundorf oil plants, 46 hit Leipzig bearing industry, 35 hit Kolleda Airfield, 19 hit Leipzig Station and seven hit Nordhausen. On August 24, 1944, USAF hit the airfield and Gustloff factory, 11 B-17s bombed Nordhausen airfield (the 511th Bombardment Squadron bombed Buchenwald/Nordhausen). In 1943, a new Gustloff factory (in addition to one at Weimar) was  built at Buchenwald, and an August 1944 bombing destroyed the Buchenwald factory, killing many forced laborers. Salvaged equipment was moved to an underground salt mine in Billroda to resume production. On April 1, 1945, units of the 3rd Army Group under the command of General George S. Patton, crossed the border into the German state of Thuringia. Further north, the 9th Army Group under the command of General William H. Simpson rounded up dozens of surrendering German units.  On April 3 & 4, 1945 three-quarters of the town of Nordhausen was destroyed and 8,800 people died, including 1500 sick prisoners at the Boelcke Kaserne barracks. On April 6, 1945, a Canadian armoured column cut the final supply line of V-2 rockets from the assembly plants near Zutphen. Later on April 10, 1945, the U.S. Army captured Nordhausen and on April 18 took over Magdeburg. A few days later, on April 25, a historical meeting took place when American reconnaissance troops met Russian units for the first time. At the beginning of May, British troops reached the port town of Wismar. In their rapid advance, however, Eisenhower’s troops went one step too far: “The occupation of Central Germany by the troops of the Western Allies, was off the negotiations between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.” The demarcation line between the Western and the Eastern Sector was agreed in details by the “Big Three,” at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, therefore the American presence in the eastern German states of Thuringia and Saxony, lasted less than 100 days. On July 1, the Americans and British pulled out. The population’s fear of retaliation at the hands of the incoming Red Army resulted in a gigantic wave of German refugees. For many of those who were just simply scared, but also for those who committed war crimes, the publication of the zones of occupation, was the impulse they needed to pack up and leave. All through May, the American military witnessed the panicked streams of refugees heading west. In addition, there were masses of people from further east fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops. Terrorized people tried to carry as many of their belongings as possible into the western sectors. Not only private citizens embarked on the uncertain journey, but also many businesses took care to prevent machines, valuable documents and company executives, from falling into Soviet hands. The textile company Vereinigte Glanzstoff AG from Plauen in Saxony and the Siemens & Halkse factory followed suit. After the directors were tipped off by the American administration, a broad evacuation was started, so between 2,000 and 3,000 Siemens employees and around 500 tons of company property, were shipped from Thuringia to Bavaria by truck and train. Doctors, lawyers and engineers disappeared over night. The American military, which had agreed to stop the exodus, did little to stop it.  That way, many industries followed the lead of Vereinigte Glanzstoff and Siemens in the weeks before and after the occupying forces changed, to the obvious advantage of the American side. Through the voluntary flight from the Soviets, the Americans and British made easily sure, that the top technical and scientific intelligence from central Germany was secured. Surprisingly some top German scientists like Helmut Gröttrup’s team, were more impressed by the Soviet system, than the American capitalism.


Helmut Gröttrup was born on February 12, 1916 in Köln, Germany and was an electrical engineer during WWII. He participated in the Aggregate 4 (A-4) V-2 rocket program development as a manager for Wernher von Braun. In 1940, he was a program manager for the remote guidance and control at Peenemünde Army Research Center. In December 1940, he was made department head at Peenemünde Army Research Center under Ernst Steinhoff. Nonetheless Gröttrup no longer wished to ‘understudy’ Von Braun, as he had done in the development of the V-2 rocket. So that, Gröttrup decided to approach the Soviets and was quickly offered a senior position in the Russian rocket program development. From September 9, 1945 to October 22, 1946, Gröttrup worked under the supervision of Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, in the Soviet Occupation Zone (later German Democratic Republic).




In June 1946, Gröttrup team from Nordhausen completed the design of the K-1 (R-1) rocket using some parts manufactured in the reopened factories in the German east zone. Factory 88 at Podlipki (later Kaliningrad, then Korolev) 16 km north-west of Moscow, and Factory 456, at Khimki, 7 km north-west of Moscow, were the first two genuine Soviet rocket assembly factories. Then, during the night of October 22, 1946, all German scientists and engineers, their families and their equipment, were unexpectedly and forcibly, including Gröttrup, his wife and two children, moved to the USSR by 92 trains as part of Operation Osoaviakhim. However Gröttrup had cooperated with Russia in bringing 20 of the V-2 rockets to the newly established rocket research institute at Kapustin Yar. The base known today as Znamensk was opened on May 13, 1946, particularly to offer facilities to German experts under the command of General Vasily Ivanovich Voznyuk. Eventually on October 18, 1947, they launched the first of the V-2 rockets brought to USSR from Germany. A Decree of the Soviet Government was issued on May 13, 1946, to establish the NII, KB, test organizations, factories, to develop, manufacture and test long-range ballistic missiles (LRBM), to which was appointed as the chief designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. Few months later, on August 26, 1946, by the decree of the minister of armaments Dmitriy Fedorovich Ustinov, was approved the organizational structure of the NII-88, establishing the Department 3 of the Special Design Bureau (today S.P. Korolev RSC Energia) headed by Chief Designer S.P. Korolev. Gröttrup helped Korolev with the R-1 project, a recreation of the V-2 missile using Russian manufacturing and materials. At Kapustin Yar State Central Test Range (GTsP), Gröttrup helped Korolev supervise the launching of 20 rebuilt V-2 rockets.  In September 1946, Gröttrup team designed the 2 stage intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) for a 2500 km range. Based on Korolev’s missile proposals, the People’s Commissar of Armaments, D. F. Ustinov asked Gröttrup and his small team to design several new missile systems, including the R-10 (G-1), R-12 (G-2) and the R-14 (G-4) which was similar to the A9/A10 long range missile that von Braun designed during the war. Gröttrup was also asked to consult on the R-13 (G-3) cruise missile. Despite the fact that none of these projects went beyond the design stage, some ideas were incorporated in the R-2 and R-5 missile systems. Gröttrup’s team completed in May, 1947, the G-1, project, covering the first design after the German engineering team was moved to Russia. The first group of 234 specialists was given the task of designing a 600 km range rocket (the G-1/R-10) on which the work had begun already in Germany, but the challenges in Russia were that the technical documentation was still ‘in transit’ from the German Zentralwerke and the Russian manufacturing technology, which was equivalent to that of Germany at the beginning of the 1930’s. The Germans worked at two locations, NII-88 (Korolev OKB) and Gorodmlya Island to complete the design of the G-1. Other groups of Germans worked at Factory 88 (R-1 production) and Factory 456 (Glushko OKB / engine production).  The site at Znamensk developed into a top-secret cosmodrome and the small town itself was expanded to provide a pleasurable and civilized lifestyle for the families of the research teams working on the rockets. It was no longer included on Russian maps, and there were strict rules against disclosure of what was going on. On October 18, 1947, it was recorded the first successful launch of rocket A-4 assembled from assemblies and units of German rocket V-2 in the Soviet Union. Flight test of rocket A-4 were completed in the same year. The R-1 rocket (NATO code SS-1 Scunner), Soviet code name SA11, (GRAU index 8A11), was a short-range ballistic missile manufactured in the USSR based on the German V-2 rocket. Even as a copy, it was manufactured using Soviet industrial plants and gave the Soviets valuable experience which later enabled the USSR to construct its own much more capable rockets. The rocket was intended to be made of locally produced materials and components, but most of the alloys used in the design were developed by Germans, so Soviets had to recreate the production process in USSR. The flight control system was one of the main road blocks. In order to develop an all-party cooperation between the main participating organizations more effective, Korolev created the Council of Chief Designers. Glushko, Pilugin, Barmin, Ryazanskiy and Kuznetsov became the first members of an informal body headed by Korolev. The R-1, produced in Podlipki, had a range of 270 km and the total weight of 13.4 ton, including the 1.1 ton inseparable warhead. The empty weight of the rocket would be 4,015 kg, while the load of oxidizer accounted for 5,160 kg and that of fuel for 4,085 kg. The R-1 was 14.275 meters tall and 1.65 meters diameter, with its fins having a span of 3.56 meters. The rocket was powered by the RD-100 engine manufactured by Glushko’s SKB, based on the A-4 propulsion unit. The RD-100 had a surface thrust of 267 kH and run for 65 seconds during the ascent. Gröttrup, Dr. Kurt Magnus, a specialist in the field of gyroscopy, and Dr. Hans Hoch, an expert in the field of electronic transformations and  control, were present in Kapustin Yar for R-1 trials especially on September 17, 1948, when the first R-1 blasted off from its launch pad. A control system failure caused a 50-degree deviation from the intended azimuth of launch, but the rocket almost reached its calculated range. After the second launch that was also a failure, the success was achieved on October 10, 1948, during the third launch when the rocket hit the target area at 288 km east of the range. Of a total of 12 R-1 delivered to Kapustin Yar in the fall of 1948, nine were launched and seven hit their targets. Although R-1 missile was perfected to serve purely as a mobile weapon, during these trials, scientists from FIAN (Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences USSR) had a chance to lift physical instruments up to 76 kilometers above the Earth surface. Moreover, a series of the so-called “geophysical” rockets was derived from the R-1 design. The techniques of the warhead separation were tested in the first geophysical version of the rocket known as R-1A (V-1A). The rocket was intended for “vertical” flight trajectory with the apogee of about 100 km rather than for a long range path flown by  R-1. For R-1A’s first launch on April 21, 1949, two recoverable containers were placed externally on the tail section of the rocket designed to obtain sterile air samples away from the region contaminated by the rocket’s exhaust. As the R-1A had reached its highest point of about 100 km above the Earth surface, its engine was shot down after running for 65 seconds and the containers were jettisoned and landed under parachutes, about 20 km from the launch pad. The R-1A was also equipped with a separable warhead, though with no system for soft landing. Addition of the containers and warhead separation system raised the launch mass of the R-1A to 13,910 kilograms and reduced the payload to 800 kilograms. A total of six R-1A rockets were launched.

Kapustin Yar site was created for the development of the USSR space program after the end of WWII. It stretches across 500 miles south of Moscow and about 60 miles east of Volgograd (former Stalingrad). Initially the base was built deep inside Soviet territory, but today it lies close to the Kazakhstan border. There the captured V2 rockets and the German scientists who created them were set to work with not only the single task of getting into space before the Americans, but also designing and testing new aircraft, missiles and other weapons systems. The base was deemed so secret that the nearby town of Zhitkur was emptied of its population and levelled because it was too close.





R-2 missile transported toward its launch pad






R-5M missile capable to carry a nuclear warhead




In 1955, Korolev’s team introduced the first R-5M missile, designed to carry a nuclear warhead to a distance of 1,200 kilometers. After a series of test flights, R-5M launched its first live atomic warhead on February 2, 1956. It produced an 80-kiloton nuclear explosion at a test site in Kazakhstan. Their photographs were made public to mark the 70th anniversary of a missile test range in Kapustin Yar, founded by a Soviet government decree on May 13, 1946. Hidden in the vast grasslands of Southern Russia, halfway between the cities of Volgograd and Astrakhan, the site on the Volga River was first used in 1947 to test-fire infamous V-2 ballistic missiles captured in Germany at the end of WWII. In October 1949, German aerodynamicist Werner Albring designed the G-3 missile for the Russians using a rocket-powered Gröttrup-designed G-1, as the first stage. The cruise stage had an aerodynamic layout like that of the Saenger-Bredt rocket-powered antipodal bomber of WWII. Cruising at 13 km altitude, the supersonic missile would carry a 3000 kg warhead to a range of 2900 km. This was an alternate approach to Ustinov’s 3000 kg over 3000 km range missile requirement of April 1949, elaborated at Korolev’s bureau into the EKR ramjet design of 1953. On September 21, 1949, it was launched the R-2E missile, an experimental verification of new missile   R-2 systems.

On March 15, 1953, it was launched the strategic missile R-5. Its modification R-5M was equipped with a special nuclear capable warhead. On the basis of missile R-5 geophysical missiles R-5A (launches in 1958-1961), R-5B (launches in 1964-1975), including the Vertical program and others were developed.

On April 18, 1953, it was launched the first operative-tactical missile R-11.

On September 16, 1955, was recorded the first submarine launch of missile R-11FM.

On May 15, 1957, occurred the first launch of two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile R-7.

On August 21, 1957, was noted the successful launch of two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile R-7.

On October 4, 1957, was launched the first earth artificial satellite (EAS) of 83.6 kg in mass. It stayed in orbit for 92 days and on January 4, 1958, it entered the upper atmosphere and burnt.

On November 3, 1957, was launched the second EAS of 508 kg in mass with dog Laika aboard.

On May 15, 1958, was launched the third EAS of 1327 kg in mass by an R-7-type missile with improved power characteristics.

On January, 2, 1959, was launched the Luna-1 (Mechta) interplanetary station by a three-stage rocket (missile R-7 with E module as the third stage) that flew by moon at the distance of 5000 km.

On September 12, 1959, was launched the Luna-2 interplanetary station that delivered a USSR pennant to the Moon’s surface (Sept 14, 1959).

The value of the German expertise to the Russians proved to be limited and in due course, the Soviet authorities allowed the research workers to return to their homes in Germany. The design of rocket motors in Russia by Aleksei Mikhailovich Isaev, was already superior to the German concepts used in the V-2 rockets, and their lightweight copper motors gave rise to the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. It was this design advantage that gave the Russians technical superiority in rocketry and led to their launching the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1, and subsequently to the launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man into space. The same technology gave the Soviets the capacity to launch the first lunar probe, and later the spacecraft sent out towards the planets. Indeed, this design of rocket is still in use today. Once it was recognized that there was little point in keeping the German rocket specialists in Russia, on 22 November 1953 Gröttrup was given leave to return to his native Germany. For security reasons, German specialists were not allowed to work on important missile technologies after 1951, but they were kept in the USSR for a 1.5 year “cooling off” period so they could not give timely information to British or American intelligence. Gröttrup and a few other German scientists were kept longer, based on their positions and the concern that they would move to West Germany. However Fritz Karl Preikschat, who managed a lab under Gröttrup from 1946-1952 on Gorodomlya Island, was released in June 1952, made it to West Germany, and briefed the U.S. Air Force on the Russia rocket program.


Back in Germany, Gröttrup worked for SEL (Standard Elektrik Lorenz) in Stuttgart (1955–1958). From 1970, he worked for Giesecke & Devrient for chip cards and banknote processing systems.

In 1959, he, with Joseph Mayer, formed a company called DATEGE in the data processing industry.  In cooperation with Jürgen Dethloff he designed and patented the chip card used by nowadays modern banking systems.

Several patents were filed in 1968 and 1969 and granted later-on, such as US3678250, GB1317915, GB1318850. In 1970, Giesecke & Devrient took over DATEGE and he later retired. Helmut Gröttrup died on July 5, 1981, in München, Germany.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *